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In Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman is an individual who strives to achieve the “American Dream” in the 1940’s. This era was characterized by America’s climb out of the Great Depression in addition to its recognition as a world superpower following World War II. A now prosperous nation seething with opportunity, the “American Dream” of this decade was commonly defined by economic success, a wholesome family, and land ownership. However, Willy Loman struggles to acquire this national ethos due to his misconception of himself as someone greater than who he really is. His success as a salesman is limited and his relationship with his family is strained, especially with Biff in particular. Biff realizes that the aimless direction his life is taking is partially due to the inflation of his pride caused by Willy’s false convictions, which emphasized the importance of being “well liked.” However, when at the deepest point of being at loss with himself, Biff finally realizes and comes to terms with who he is. Contrasted with Willy, who remains in denial until his tragic demise, Biff’s honest and raw introspective of his self-purpose evolves as the play progresses, until Biff finally fulfills his journey for self-discovery.
Initially, Biff projects an aura of uncertainty that surrounds him. At the age of thirty-four his life has not yet taken a definite path and he is unable to secure a stable career. In his conversation with Happy in his room, he expresses his concern, stating “I’m like a boy. I’m not married, I’m not in business, I just-I’m like a boy (23).” Biff is also described as bearing “a worn air” and seeming “less self-assured” (19). When Happy and Biff discuss girls, Happy even asks Biff, “Where’s the old humor, the old confidence?” In addition, the American ideals of success contribute to Biff’s ambiguity. Biff would rather live a basic life on a ranch herding cattle, than devoting his “whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying.” Contentment is success for Biff, and it is obvious he associates the two with each other when he asks Happy, “Are you content, Hap? You’re a success, aren’t you? Are you content?” However, in a society where success is measured in dollars and material, Biff is left uncertain of what he is “supposed to want.” Even though he loves being out in the open air of a farm, it does not generate enough capital, and he is left with the realization, “What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week!”(22). As a result, Biff is unwillingly pulled into the world of attaining economic success, even if it means risking one’s contentment. Therefore, as Willy claims, “Biff Loman is lost.”
In his essay, “Focus on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: The Wrong Dreams,” literary critic Chester Eisinger contends that the play “concerns competing dreams and identity crisis,” one scheme being the “urban dream of business success” and the other being the “rural agrarian dream of open space.” Willy suffers with his identity, and Eisinger proposes that he “does not know who he is.” In terms of “business success,” Willy relies on the approval of others, and being “well liked” is used as a measuring tool for the success of his career. When he explains to Howard how there “was personality” in being a salesman, Willy conjured his memory of Dave Singleman, a successful and popular salesman. Willy states that he “died the death of a salesman…-when he died, hundred of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral” (81). As a result, Singleman respresents what Willy wants to become and his idea of success. Willy also exaggerates constantly about his achievements and self-identity. In a flashback of their childhood, Willy tells Biff and Happy that “fine, upstanding people…know me up and down New England…when I bring you fellas up there’ll be open sesame for all of us…I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own.” This indicates that Willy lives in a fragile world of self-delusion, where instead of focusing on reality, he convinces himself that he is well liked and successful by lying. This fills Biff with arrogance, and blew him “so full of hot air” that he “could never stand taking orders from anybody.” In addition, Willy’s mentality that approval is more important than good ethics negatively affects Biff. For example, Willy condones Biff’s theft of the regulation football, praising that the “Coach’ll probably congratulate you on your initiative!” (30). When Bernard logically points out that just because Biff “printed University of Virginia on his sneakers doesn’t mean they’ve got to graduate him,” Willy regards Bernard as a “pest” and an “anemic” to his sons. Willy even tells Biff to “get some sand” from a neighboring apartment house, and praises Biff’s “nerves of iron” as he steals it. As Eisinger explains, Willy “denigrates the need for learning in the name of a higher good, personality.” He values more emphasis on being “well liked” than teaching Happy and Biff practical morals that would have proven beneficial for them in the long run. As a result, Biff ends up stealing from work, which in addition to his refusal to accept orders from authority, ultimately contributes to his lack of success. Yet, most damaging to Biff’s character is when he stumbles upon Willy’s infidelity with The Woman. As Biff storms out of the hotel room in tears, “Willy is left on the floor on his knees” (121). This ultimately symbolizes Willy’s “fall” into downward decline. Willy’s belittled position before Biff also represents Biff’s loss of respect for him, as he no longer idolizes him as he did when he was a boy. Biff becomes so upset that he lets go of his once promising and bright future, resulting in Willy’s empty dream that he wished for Biff to fulfill someday. Therefore, this further puts pressure and causes tension between Willy and Biff’s relationship.
The discovery of his father’s adultery is a main turning point in Biff’s life. Devastated, he spends his life as an underachiever who suffers an identity crisis. However, the beginning of Biff’s self-discovery comes when he steals a pen from Bill Oliver’s office. He has an epiphany in which he recalls that he “stopped in the middle of that building and saw sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke (132).” Biff accepts that he does not belong in a business world and even asks himself, “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?” Appropriately, literary critic Fred Ribkoff implies that “Biff goes to see Oliver in a futile attempt to fit his self-circular self in an ‘angular world’ – a world in the process of crushing both the son and father, men far more adept at using their hands than at using a pen.” His impulsive theft of Oliver’s pen shows that Biff will never reach the standard “American Dream” and simultaneously be content.
His encounter with Oliver also allows Biff to realize, “I even believed myself that I’d been a salesman for him! And then he gave me one look and-I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been! We’ve been talking in a dream for fifteen years. I was a shipping clerk.” Biff is the only character to acknowledge the harsh truth that he and Happy were living a lie conjured by Willy’s delusion in terms of their success. In addition, when he confronts Willy and Happy about knowing their self-identity, he exclaims, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” Happy, still disillusioned, denies this, and tries to correct Biff when he concedes that Happy is not an assistant buyer, but “one of the two assistants to the assistant.” Biff accuses the family of being “full of it” and admits, “all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!” As a result, Biff is willing to sacrifice false pride for a realistic insight of who he is.
Biff’s remark to Willy, “I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you,” becomes the quintessence of self-discovery for Biff- he has liberated himself from Willy’s disenchanted philosophy of superiority, which is evident when Willy argues that “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” Biff, ruggedly honest, also tells Willy, “You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” By making these accusations, it is evident that Biff has deflated his self-perception that had been instilled by Willy. He is no longer unsure of who he is and realizes that he will never live up to Willy’s materialistic dreams, which are virtually unattainable. This is exemplified when he asks Willy, “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Biff is aware that Willy’s desperate plight in search of success is slowly consuming him. Accordingly, it eventually does, and following Willy’s tragic death, Biff solemnly asserts, “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.” However, perhaps the strongest evidence of Biff’s self-discovery lies in his declaration in the Requiem, when he simply tells Happy, “I know who I am, kid.”
Throughout the course of the play, Biff’s character makes a full circle. In his high school years, he is successful in terms of popularity, only to be followed by a period of confusion regarding who he is. Eventually, his success comes in the form of realizing his dreams in a strong, even brutally honest, sense of self-discovery. As Ribkoff explains, “Biff reminds us that the ‘American Dream’ is not Everyman’s dream.” He disregards success in terms of business and income-he would prefer to be content living on wide-open land, even if it means little pay. As a result, the implications of his dreams are out of sync with society’s and Willy’s conception of success, which relies on material and being “well liked.” Therefore, Willy is never capable of understanding Biff’s basic desire, which results in a troubled relationship between father and son. The effect of Willy on Biff’s struggle to find himself also shifts the play’s focus to Biff. The audience therefore sympathizes with Biff’s character as he attempts to discover who he is, while remaining the only Loman who is honest with himself. As a result, it can be concluded that Biff is a clear protagonist, or even hero, of the tragic “Death of a Salesman.”
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